Expert Commentary

Prioritizing mental health in the newsroom: 5 tips to get you started

In a recent one-hour webinar, a panel of experts shared insights and tips for taking care of journalists who cover traumatic events. For those who couldn't tune in, we're sharing a video recording and five highlights from the discussion.

Photo of a raised hand in a conference.
Photo by Marcos Luiz Photograph on Unsplash

About a decade ago, Dave Seglins covered the trial of a Canadian military commander who had turned into a serial killer. The trial was graphic, and it was not easy to sit through.

“A couple days after the sentencing, I had a total break, which I wouldn’t have used that word at the time,” recalled Seglins, an investigative reporter and well-being champion with CBC News in Toronto, during a one-hour virtual session about prioritizing mental health in newsrooms on Jan. 17. “I just thought I was dying, and I couldn’t get out of bed and I was having all of these responses that I did not understand.”

A family doctor referred him to a trauma specialist who told him that what he was experiencing was a normal reaction to what he had witnessed during the trial. He was having a post-traumatic stress response.

“We are incredibly good in this business to prioritize the story and the content and the product,” said Seglins, who recently co-authored a study on the mental health and well-being of Canadian media workers. “What we’re not great at is managing the people and making it okay for people to be imperfect and to be affected by the work.”

Along with Seglins, the webinar included Scott Blanchard, director of journalism at public media station WITF in Harrisburg, Pa., a board member for the Trust for Trauma Journalism; Sewell Chan, editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune, who led his newsroom in the coverage of the 2022 mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde; and Dr. Elana Newman, research director of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma and McFarlin Professor of Psychology at the University of Tulsa. I moderated the session, which was hosted by The Journalist’s Resource.

Below is the recording of the session and you can read the transcript here. I’ve also highlighted five of my favorite takeaways from the discussion and listed several resources, including two books mentioned by the panelists.

1. Learn about basic trauma terminology.

Trauma, stress and burnout are not the same and should not be treated the same.

Stress is not being able to meet the demands at that time, Newman explained. “We all have stress and stress can make traumatic stress worse. And in fact, I have research with my students that I have discovered that it’s trauma plus a toxic organizational environment for journalists that’s the lethal combination. And that’s why we can’t always reduce the exposure, but we can make the organization safer,” she said.

Trauma is a complex and ambiguous noun and can refer to a physical wound or psychologic injury, according to The Dart Center Style Guide for Trauma-Informed Journalism. “It can refer to a one-time experience or aftermath of overwhelming fear, or the cumulative, complex impact of ongoing abuse and threat, or both,” according to the guide.

Meanwhile, burnout is separate from trauma, Newman said. “It can be related, but burnout is when you have just too much to do and it overwhelms your resources and it usually leads to exhaustion, cynicism,” she said.

There’s also vicarious trauma, which refers to psychological changes resulting from cumulative, empathetic engagement with trauma survivors in a professional context, according to Dart’s style guide. It refers to a changed worldview. “And it’s actually technically refers to both positive and negative ways that your worldview may be changed,” Newman said. “You may see danger everywhere. You may see the world as only a terrible place.

“The world is a dangerous place, but there’s also safety in it. There’s also beauty in it, and trying to keep that balance is important,” she said.

2. Become a champion for mental health in your newsroom.

In Seglins’ case, he took an online course through Harvard Medical School, to learn about the concepts of global mental health and trauma, and the brain science of stress and trauma. He was a fellow of Dart Center’s 2022 Ochberg Fellowship, a program that deepens journalists’ reporting of violence and tragedy.

Holding a town hall meeting was one of the first things Seglins did at CBC News in his role as well-being champion.

He and his colleagues started with a simple question: What can we do to build a culture of well-being around here? They recorded ideas, sent out short survey to their colleagues, published the results internally and prompted a company-wide discussion.

 “If you’re a reporter in the newsroom, own it. Just do it,” Seglins said. “Say, ‘Hey, let’s get together. Let’s have an event.’ We all know how to run a Zoom call now. Doesn’t take much.”

3. Develop protocols for covering traumatic events and hold training sessions.

Blanchard helped create a committee among several newsrooms on the East Coast and together, they developed a guide on how a trauma-awareness and peer-support program in a newsroom would operate.

They followed that with a day-long training for Central Pennsylvania newsrooms with experts, including Newman and a psychologist with a local healthcare system. That training included role-playing for peer support. They held another training, led by the Dart Center, for the broader East Coast newsroom cohort.

“We can change newsroom by newsroom, person by person. We can change. We can make the change happen,” Blanchard said.

Dart Center provides a range of training sessions to news organization and journalism-related nonprofits around the world.

4. Have a specific plan for covering mass tragedies.

“We should recognize and our default should be that covering a massively traumatic event demands that we think about the processing of it and the aftermath of it, and offer people the help, rather than waiting for them to come forward and say that they need it,” said Chan.

At Texas Tribune, following the Uvalde mass shooting, Chan reached out to the Dart Center and Trust for Trauma Journalism for guidance.

The news managers insisted that reporters who had been on the ground for a certain number of days had to leave even if they wanted to stay on this story. The newsroom held sessions for the entire staff to talk about processing what they had just seen and observed. And they brought in a counselor to help smaller set of journalists who were dealing specifically with very graphic material footage that had emerged from the tragedy.

“We can’t say anymore, ‘Well, these are exceptions.’ You have to actually build into your newsroom protocols [with the thought] that something traumatic is probably going to happen,” said Chan, whether it’s a natural or human-caused tragedy.

5. Put people first.

“We do need to be results-oriented as organizations, but we also need to be people-centered,” said Chan. “There’s a human capital crisis in much of journalism. If we’re losing people because we have not supported them, really shame on us, because that’s not only a sign of institutional failure, but also it’s not efficient.”

He hoped that people on the finance side of news operations hear the message and realize that there’s a cost associated with losing and replacing journalists.

“It’s much better to help your existing people to succeed than see a portion of them leave out of frustration or burnout,” said Chan. “There’s this opportunity cost. It doesn’t seem like a cost unless you think about all the other things that you now have to do to make up for that lost work or that lost talent. And that’s really a tragedy.”

Answers to some of the audience questions post-panel

Following the panel, Blanchard volunteered to answer some of the audience questions not addressed during the discussion because we ran out of time. We’ve included the questions and Blanchard’s responses below.

Q: I have conducted research among South African editors on how they are handling journalism related trauma in the newsroom. Firstly, many did not feel equipped to provide trauma support so I agreed with you, we need additional trauma support through in-house psychologists. However, the media economy is under severe strain. There is no money within media organisations. Budgets are tight. How does the panel propose for newsrooms that don’t have the resources that the BBCs and New York Times of this world?

Blanchard: Look for free training opportunities through the Dart Center or other organizations working in this space. Try to connect with a local clinician who understands, respects and/or is a ‘fan’ of journalism, to see if they can provide help with training or resources.

In the U.S. many communities have courses in Mental Health First Aid, which can be free and often don’t cost a lot, and can be helpful for newsroom editors or staff. If you can get a core of people in your newsroom (even just 2 or 3) who can get some training, you may be able to then train others in the newsroom.

Q: This is amazing! Thank you all for your work and leadership in this field. Curious to hear your thoughts on how we can extend these conversations with the people we cover? I recently worked on a project about military sexual violence, and had many conversations with some of the survivors about their experiences with journalists, and how we can better empower them to set boundaries or to care for themselves. Any thoughts on this?

Blanchard: One thing we did not do, but should have, with the program we put together at the York Daily Record, was bring in trauma survivors — including those who have been the subject of news coverage — to talk with staff so that we could more deeply understand the effect trauma has in peoples’ lives and do journalism that is smarter and more respectful of what survivors are going through. I also admit I never thought of it the way you presented it — how could a trauma survivor help others set boundaries/care for themselves? That’s really interesting.   

Q: I’ve been working on an important but difficult, traumatic story for the last year — since January 2022 — on human trafficking in our community. The personal safety of sources and myself have been a concern all along, The newsroom has been wonderful giving me time to investigate — and to walk away from the story and cover other things for my sanity. The time has come to write the first part of the story and I feel paralyzed, hesitating to immerse myself in this person’s trauma long-enough to write it. Do you have any advice for a journalist in the thick of it needing to produce the final product?

Blanchard: In working with both journalists and clinicians in the trauma-journalism space, I hear a common thread that once a person trusts you with their story, you can return that trust by telling their story authentically, truthfully, with humanity … in hopes that through your work, the survivor and their story will be understood. I don’t know if this helps at all, but I think by investing your time and heart in receiving this person’s story and then telling it to a wider world, you are doing something honorable.  

Q: Our newsroom is intentional in addressing trauma from journalism and general mental health, which is what most mental health stories and tipsheets deal with. How can managers support staffers who come to the job with generational trauma, trauma from racism, trauma from their everyday lives or are neurodiverse?

Blanchard: If you can establish a newsroom culture where trauma and mental health conversations are normal and accepted as a sign of a strong newsroom, and not something viewed as unusual or exceptional or to be avoided, I think you open the door for staffers and managers to discuss whatever individuals bring to the job. 

Q: “Any culture change is hard.” Very true. How would y’all suggest or have experience challenging ‘shame’ when it comes to needing to have mental health conversations in a newsroom? For young journalists in particular for whom it’s just occurring that they may be having trouble.

Blanchard: See if you can figure out ways to normalize conversations around trauma and mental health in the newsroom. You can do it in part by linking it to best practices as a journalist: The more you understand about these issues, the stronger your reporting and writing will be. If people feel comfortable in that space, they may feel more comfortable talking about issues they may be having. 

Q: What are some ways a small short-staffed newsroom start to address burnout?

Blanchard: If you’re sensing that there is staff-wide burnout, or that there could be, you could consider talking to staff about what’s going on and seeing if there are problem-solving opportunities. Just acknowledging it can be a big deal — I have heard a lot of people say that the thing that grinds on them the most is that leadership is clueless as to what is going on. I can speak from experience when I say that even well-intentioned managers will miss things or not be as aware/responsive as they should be. You may also find that some staffers just need to be heard and supported regarding frustrations they’re having, and simply having a conversation can be a helpful start to meeting challenges in the newsroom.     

Q: As a professor who teaches university students hoping to go into journalism, what would be the most important wisdom you would impart to them? What should they do to prepare?

Blanchard: As a manager who has hired his share of young reporters, I would say that they should understand that as journalists, they may or will be involved in or exposed to stories of trauma. They should learn as much as they can about trauma awareness, self-care and peer support. When they interview for jobs, they should ask newsrooms what is in place — infrastructure, training, commitment etc. — with regard to those issues.

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